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How New Legislation Could Affect Federal Inmates

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Before Congress leaves for the holidays, lawmakers may pass the most ambitious change to the criminal justice system in a generation. The First Step Act would reduce prison terms for some offenders who participate in rehabilitation programs. The bill has broad support from both parties, and President Trump seems likely to sign it.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah is one of the bill's sponsors, and he joins us from his home in Utah. Welcome.

MIKE LEE: Thank you very much - good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Historically Republicans have been the tough-on-crime party. What do you think changed to make so many of your colleagues support this bill?

LEE: They've realized that in order to be tough on crime, you have to be smart in the way you fight crime, and you have to be focused on actually reducing the crime rate. That includes reducing the rate of recidivism. That's what our bill does, and it would make the American people safer.

SHAPIRO: There has been quite a journey to get the bill to this point. Some variation of it has been percolating through Congress for years. And for weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was skeptical of this bill. He said there weren't enough votes to pass it and he wouldn't commit to bringing it up for a vote. What do you think just recently changed his mind?

LEE: I knew we were making headway when my personal vote count within Senate Republicans jumped up to the point where we had a majority within the majority. I knew we were making headway there. I also knew we were making headway a few weeks earlier when President Trump came out and endorsed it. It's been a real challenge. We knew it would be a challenge when we started this effort nearly eight years ago. But at every step of the way, we've just built our coalition gradually, and it's finally ready to materialize and become law.

SHAPIRO: You still have some colleagues who are not onboard with the bill. One of the most vocal opponents is Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. One of the things he's said is that this bill depends on faith that government bureaucrats can judge the state of felon's soul. How do you respond to that argument?

LEE: First of all, we're not talking about government bureaucrats here. We're talking about law enforcement officers within the Bureau of Prisons. These are experienced law enforcement personnel who know how to recognize who represents a threat to society and who doesn't, who is a good candidate for rehabilitation and who is less so.

And so it's really not accurate to say these are government bureaucrats, and it's also not accurate to say that their job is to peer into someone else's soul. They're using tried and true methods gained over the course of many decades of experience in figuring out who should be eligible for these programs.

SHAPIRO: Another opponent of the bill is the head of the National Sheriffs' Association, Jonathan Thompson. He has described this as a giant social experiment that amounts to let people out hoping they won't recidivate. What would you say to that argument?

LEE: It's just not true. In recent years, we've had a couple of trends that have resulted in an 800 or 900 percent increase in the size of the federal prison population. There's been an over-criminalization of the law generally, an over-federalization of criminal law. And we've also seen an increased reliance on minimum mandatory penalties within the federal system. That's one of the things that got me interested in this area. As a federal prosecutor, I saw someone who sold three small user quantities of marijuana over a 72-hour period. And because he was carrying a gun at the time - he didn't brandish it or discharge it, but he was carrying a weapon at the time.

Weldon Angelos, then in his mid-20s, was sentenced to 55 years in prison - 55 years. And the judge who issued the sentence at the time took the unusual step of publishing an opinion disagreeing with the sentence he was about to impose, saying there are rapists, murderers, hijackers, terrorists who don't get this much time, and yet I as a federal judge have no choice but to impose this very steep sentence, and only Congress can fix this problem. That's what we're doing here - is giving federal judges an additional modicum of discretion so that in cases like that one, they can avoid an absurd result.

SHAPIRO: You've been working on this for years and made a lot of compromises to get something that a majority of the House and Senate can agree on. Are there people in this version of the bill who you regret leaving behind, offenders who you wish you would have been able to include in this measure?

LEE: Yes, there are those who might have been eligible for what they call a safety valve relief. Safety valve relief occurs in many drug sentencing cases where based on the quantity of the drug sold, if they meet certain characteristics, the judge can have an additional degree of discretion. We've expanded the pool of eligibility to that but not quite as far as I would like to have because it would have killed the compromise. It would have killed our coalition of support. But I view this as a first step and one that we will continue to work on.

SHAPIRO: This bill only applies to people in federal custody, which is about 10 percent of the more than 2 million Americans in U.S. prisons right now. Do you think it's time for a broader reconsideration of America's criminal justice system?

LEE: Yes, I certainly do. And that reconsideration is already underway. And in fact, this is part of that effort. In many ways, we're standing on the shoulders of those in states like Georgia and Texas, early pioneers of some of these efforts. We've seen those efforts succeed in those states. We're going to continue that progress in the federal system. And I think people will see that what we're doing here is working. And in many states that haven't yet adopted reforms like these, you'll see those reforms making progress.

SHAPIRO: Well, Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, thank you so much for talking with us today.

LEE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.